One of my favorite Web sites is Arts & Letters Daily, a round-up of interesting articles from across the Web. This week the site brought two articles to my attention that I found noteworthy for a variety of reasons, and the more I thought about them, the more they seemed to fit together in some synergistic way. The first article, In Praise of Melancholy, is an impassioned argument for the importance of sadness, or melancholy, to the human experience. The author, Eric G. Wilson, bemoans the “American obsession with happiness,” and contends that it “breeds blandness,” and leads to a lack of authenticity in our lives. He cites the poet John Keats as an example of someone who understood that although life can be difficult and tragic, the very sense of the fleetingness of human existence is what helps us appreciate the beauty of the world.
As a poet and sometime melancholic, I found a lot to appreciate in this article, most likely because I have often had the kinds of aesthetic epiphanies that may come from contemplating the world in a melancholic light. I can’t do justice to the article here, but I would definitely recommend it to anyone who wants to challenge their thinking about the value of sadness to a fully-lived life. However, the more I thought about this article, the more I realized that a piece of the puzzle was missing; the pre-condition for my own bouts of insight into the deeper meaning of things was not sadness but the very act of reflection. I think that sadness may cause more introspection, as we look for an answer, or the silver lining, to whatever is troubling us, but I find it hard to put human suffering and pain up on such a pedestal, as something to be relished almost (of course, I’m overstating here). As I came to believe many years ago after reading theologian Dorothee Soelle’s book Suffering, it is immoral to impose the idea that suffering has to have an inherent meaning, because that expectation can lead to justifications for horrible acts of brutality. In the most extreme example, how could anyone expect a survivor of the Holocaust to agree that the experience was beneficial to them in any way?
I think part of the problem is the definition of terms. I have always thought of melancholy as a voluntary state, not something imposed by external events. The quintessential melancholic experience for me is to go for a solitary walk in a lonely park, on a cloudy or rainy day, and to revel in the thoughts that spring from that environment. Real sadness, the kind that knocks you down and makes it difficult to think straight, is not something I can easily wish on someone. I make this distinction because I think melancholy, or the ability to contemplate the world at a remove from its surface appearances, is something that comes more naturally to introverts, and it’s a quality I highly value. Sadness on the other hand, or even depression, afflicts everyone equally, and is not conducive to creativity in the same way.
This leads me to the second article I mentioned earlier, a review of a book called Shyness: How Normal Behaviour Became a Sickness by Christopher Lane. As the title might suggest, the premise of the book is that while shyness was formerly socially acceptable (a claim I might take issue with), it is more and more being treated as a mental health issue that requires medication. This is an interesting argument, but my sympathy for it is tempered by my disappointment in the author’s seeming lack of awareness about the difference between shyness and introversion. In the material quoted from his book, he conflates the two, weakening his assertion that changes to the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) have resulted in:
…the introverted individual [being] morphed into the mildly psychotic person whose symptoms included being aloof, being dull, and simply “being alone”… Apparently, social phobia—shyness— …has become a pandemic.
I am sympathetic to the author up to this last sentence; if being introverted is equated with being mentally ill, then I will take issue as well. But, if you believe, as I do, that introversion does not equal shyness, then the logic of his argument unravels. I can also agree that just because someone is shy doesn’t mean that those aspects of their behaviour should be overstated either. But I see introversion and shyness as being two completely different sets of characteristics. I have known very extroverted people who nonetheless could be considered to have mild social phobia, and I have known introverts who are exceedingly comfortable with being around others (although they usually prefer solitude).
While this might seem like a semantic quarrel, I think the broader implications of it are important. People who are truly suffering anxiety and who are not able to interact with others should not have their concerns diminished. Conversely, assumptions should not be made about a person’s mental well-being simply because of their external behaviour. As I mentioned in an earlier post, there is a big gap between preferring solitude and feeling unable to overcome it, and that difference is often known only to the individual experiencing it.
While these two articles address different topics, they both come to a similar conclusion: that we shouldn’t try to eradicate normal emotions like sadness and shyness in the name of mental health. While I admire the sentiment behind this idea, and agree with it to a certain extent, neither author is able to make a solid case for it because of what I see as the inconsistencies in their arguments: sadness is not the same thing as melancholy, and shyness is not the same thing as introversion. People who are suffering from depression or severe social anxiety do not need to hear that it is really our society that is to blame, that their problems, quite likely biochemical in nature, are all in their heads. Of course it is possible to go too far, and to try to medicate away any kind of discomfort, but I would argue that the benefits of our current knowledge of psychopharmaceuticals outweigh the potential for their abuse.